“That was going into the next field”

County Championship Group 2. Somerset v Leicestershire. 4th, 5th,  6th and 7th July 2021. Taunton.

Somerset. D.P. Conway, S.M. Davies (w), L.P. Goldsworthy, J.C. Hildreth, G.A. Bartlett, T.A. Lammonby, C. Overton (c), R.E. van der Merwe, J.H. Davey, M de Lange, J.A.Brooks.

Leicestershire. R.K.Patel, L.J. Hill, M.S. Harris, C. Ackermann (c), J.P. Inglis, H.J. Swindells (w), B.W.M. Mike, C.F. Parkinson, G.T. Griffiths, E. Barnes, W.S. Davis.

Overnight. Somerset 242 for 7.

Second day 5th July – “That was going into the next field.”

The anticipation of a game in the balance from the previous evening still hung in the air as I took my seat in the lower deck of the Trescothick Pavilion. Somerset 242 for 7 overnight was a difficult score to read. The second day conditions were more conducive to batting, of which Leicestershire were expected to do the main part, with the atmosphere still warm, but less humid. There was cloud, though high and white, with enough gaps for the sun to shine through. Leicestershire held the advantage thought the head, but the heart reminded that this Somerset team had won from far less propitious positions.

The view from the lower tier of the Trescothick Pavilion is of a more natural angle for cricket watching than from the three-storey high upper tier. Seated up there you rarely need to look up at a ball. There are few places on the county circuit better suited to watching a slip catch from behind than the lower tier. With a quick bowler running in from the River End, the hands that take the catch seem within touching range. It does not though have the panoramic views of the Quantocks, synonymous with Somerset cricket, afforded by the upper tier where I am yet to be allocated a seat in this season of coronavirus regulations. The second-day crowd was larger than the first, the weather forecast being more amenable to watching cricket, and as the players exercised their muscles, the spectators exercised their voices with animated, anticipatory chatter.

Parkinson opened the bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End with his leg spin and van der Merwe drove the first ball firmly along the ground to mid-off. From there, Somerset suffered some initial alarums. Davey skyed a straight drive off Parkinson but ran two as the ball landed feet in front of the chasing fielder and van der Merwe was beaten by a gasp-inducing ball from Ben Mike. Before the change in format of the County Championship, Leicestershire were a confirmed second division side and had struggled at the start of this year’s competition. More latterly, they had begun to make an impact. Now, with the future of the Somerset ininngs in the balance, a tense quiet settled over the ground as they threatened to do so again.

However, one way or another, things tend not to remain quiet for long with van der Merwe at the crease, and in his own inimitable style he soon erupted into sending the ball scurrying hither and thither. No corner of the Cooper Associates County Ground was safe, and the shape of the Somerset innings began to change. He began with a peremptory short-arm push off Mike which raced behind square to the Ondaatje Stand. He followed that with a drive through the covers to the Temporary Stand. In Mike’s next over a late cut ran to the covers store and a swirling, helicopter hook stroke seemed to complete a circuit of his head after the ball had fled towards Legend’s Square. What the ghosts who reside in the old Stragglers would have made of such a stroke I know not, but the crowd was by now in excellent voice. When Griffiths replaced Mike, he was driven over a desperately leaping mid-off to the Colin Atkinson boundary. That brought up the fifty partnership with Davey, who was the epitome of a safe anchor at the heart of the van der Merwe storm, although quite capable of a reverse sweep for four off Parkinson when the fancy took him.  

The cheers flowed and Van der Merwe tore past fifty, driving Davis through the covers to the Somerset Stand and punching a drive through backward point to the Garner Gates. Then Davey took a leaf from the van der Merwe coaching manual with a swirling cut off Griffiths which raced through backward point to the Ondaatje Boundary followed by a sharp dab through third man to the covers store. Van der Merwe was constantly on the move, whether facing or not. When Davey had the strike, he prowled the non-striker’s crease as if he were a lion in search of prey. Griffiths was the bowler next in his sights. A ball punched through third man brought up Somerset’s 300 and their third batting point. The next two balls he summarily dispatched to the boundary, unleashing cheers and raising spirits from one end of the ground to the other. The first was driven with the crack of a rifle shot straight of a diving midwicket, the next cut just as fiercely through backward point. Even the single which followed was driven mercilessly along by a furious, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” as van der Merwe bounded up the pitch, running like a collie after a far-flung stick. A crashing, swinging pull through midwicket to the Caddick Pavilion boundary brought a shout of, “Wow!” as if someone could not believe their eyes.

Now, Davey, who had kept Leicestershire out for 27 overs while collecting 26 runs, drove at Griffiths, edged the ball through the slips to the Trescothick Pavilion, and to extended applause, brought up the century partnership. And then, as hearts dropped into the pits stomachs, it was over. Van der Merwe miscued a drive against Barnes. Davis, from mid-off, ran then slid on his knees to take a sharp catch almost in line with the stumps. Van der Merwe, instantly marched rather than walked off as if he were still being driven by the same force that had driven his innings. Applause, and smiles, followed his every step to and across the rope. With Davey’s support he had transformed the Somerset innings and perhaps the match. Somerset 326 for 8. Van der Merwe 76.

Van der Merwe may have gone, but the innings refused to take breath. Marchant de Lange strode from the Caddick Pavilion as if he were a teacher crossing a playground intent on dealing out punishment to a miscreant child. Davey intercepted him some way short of his destination and they walked the rest of the way together, now at a measured pace, engaged intently in a conversation which suggested said punishment was being determined. At any event, there was no doubting de Lange’s intent, even if intent and execution of stroke sometimes differed. A straight drive off Barnes aimed at the Trescothick Pavilion flew square to the Somerset Stand, outrunning the pursuing fielder as it went. The pull-drive which followed flew as furiously off the middle and straight into the Ondaatje Stand to cheers and a comment of, “Goodness! This could get interesting.”

Perhaps that earnest conversation was bearing fruit, for Davey added to the pressure on the Leicestershire bowlers. In an over, he clipped Mike off his legs and hooked him to the Somerset Stand boundary. But the assault which de Lange unleashed with an array of strokes, ranging from orthodox to outlandish, was devastating. A pull off Barnes, in which the foot movement seemed to be completed as a separate action to the stroke landed in the car park beyond the Temporary Stand. When Barnes pitched short again, De Lange executed a late cut lifted straight from the coaching manual. It defeated a diving third man as he hurtled around the boundary from the River Stand to the Lord Ian Botham Stand.

In Barnes’ next over a shoulder-high scoop reached the same boundary, while a gargantuan, turbo-charged hook shot missed the ball altogether to general laughter and the comment, “That was going in the next field.” It was, in short, a typical de Lange innings. Almost without exception de Lange’s innings are marked by ferocity, rapidity and serendipity. The only doubt is their longevity, the extent of the damage they do to opposition morale and the velocity of the momentum they give Somerset. In an over from Barnes, he launched another ball into the car park behind the Temporary Stand, created gales of laughter with an extravagant waft which connected with nothing but air, and executed a cut which took the ball through wide third man to the River Stand. By way of variety, a neat steer off Parkinson for two to fine leg brought the wry comment, “He can do subtle too.”

By the time the players left the field for lunch de Lange had registered his fifty from 38 balls, mishitting the last ball before the interval, although it still cleared the Ondaatje boundary to a combination of cheers and incredulity. Somerset had also secured their fifth batting point, more cheers, and had added 166 runs in the the 31 overs of the morning session. Davey had continued to anchor the innings as the de Lange gale blew, reaching his own fifty just before de Lange reached his with a reverse sweep off Parkinson. It had taken 144 balls in over three hours. At lunch, the ground was humming, the faces circulating around the perimeter were wreathed in smiles and the words most often overheard were “de Lange” and “van der Merwe” with some honourable mentions for Davey.

No sooner were people back in their seats than Davey lofted Parkinson straight back to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary. De Lange, having been restricted to two when a lofted on drive was brilliantly knocked back just short of the cover store boundary, dropped to one knee and took the boundary rope out of the equation by depositing the ball into the Ondaatje Stand. A sweep for two off Parkinson brought up the second hundred partnership in succession, a cover drive off Davis added two more, singles from both batsmen kept the scoreboard on its toes, and a reverse sweep off Parkinson from Davey brought cheers for the stroke as much as the two runs it realised. 

And then, suddenly, it was over. De Lange was caught, lofting Parkinson, by Marcus Harris just short of the Lord Ian Botham Stand. Somerset supporters were floating on air, at least this one was. The scoreboard, probably as breathless as the rest of us, registered 446 for 9, with 204 added for the loss of the eighth and ninth wickets in three and a half hours of whirling mayhem. De Lange had made 75. In getting there, his innings had lasted 63 balls and a minute under an hour and a half. The transformation of the Somerset innings, the audacity and immense power of the strokes from van der Merwe and de Lange, the ball hurtling through the air and across the grass, the distance carried by some of the sixes, the speed at which the runs were scored over such a long period, and the application and contribution of Davey were a recipe for Somerset cricket-watching heaven.

And then, for Davey, the icing on the cake, for still the tenth wicket stood. A boundary driven to the Lord Ian Botham Stand which took him past a thousand first-class career runs and a four driven through the covers served to emphasise his importance to Somerset. A bowler first and foremost, and an increasingly effective one, who has forged a career which was far from certain when he came to Somerset. He began as a useful April green-top bowler. He is now rarely dispensed with at any time in the season. As my thoughts wandered, someone more in touch with reality asked, “Shouldn’t we declare?” Overton, captaining in Abell’s absence, was inclined to agree and called the batsmen from the field at 461 for 9.

“To open the bowling from the Marcus Trescothick Pavilion End. Craig Overton.” Cheers. So say my notes, and cheers there were, for Overton has made an immense contribution to Somerset’s season. He has contributed to some key partnerships with the bat, the sheer intensity of his bowling and the flow of Championship wickets which has resulted has left him indisputably the leader of the Somerset attack, and as a slip fielder he excels. “C’mon Craig O,” was the cry as he bowled the first over and a loud leg before wicket appeal brought instant applause. When Rishi Patel edged him over the slips to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary someone said, “Phew. That flew, didn’t it?”

Gradually, the efforts of the Somerset bowlers notwithstanding, the Leicestershire batsmen began to find their feet and the buzz of the crowd metamorphosed into quiet contemplation. “The batsmen look in no trouble,” says my note after Patel had clipped Overton off his toes to the Caddick Pavilion dugouts. Lewis Hill drove Brooks just to the off of straight to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion pickets, the pitch having been struck well over that way. “Shot,” the cry. “This pitch looks like there is nothing doing for the bowlers,” added the text from a cricketer watching online.

But the sunshine of the early part of the day had long faded and been replaced by thickening cloud and growing humidity. The weather was now bearing down on the match below, and perhaps on the behaviour of the ball for it began to beat the bat. Then Brooks found the edge. Off Hill’s bat, the ball flew knee-high to Overton at third slip but fell to earth. “Did he drop it?” the disbelieving question. There was no question in my mind. The heart sank, for dropped catches on pitches favouring batsmen can be costly. It hurt all the more because it was Overton who had dropped the ball, for he drops very little. When Patel was beaten defending, faces winced in disappointment. When Overton struck Hill’s pad and the umpire’s finger was raised, cheers erupted from all around and a text brought more hope, “It’s swinging nicely now.” “Come on Craig!” the shout from the stand. Now, Brooks ran in hard to Patel. Patel played back in defence, the ball flew off the edge, fast and wide of Overton, still at third slip. Overton dived, stretched and this time made no mistake. Normal service resumed. “Patel’s moved off the seam,” said the text. A look at a replay shows it slightly angled into the batsman and straightening off the pitch. Patel 21. Leicestershire 44 for 2. Heart coursing with hope.

The left-handed Marcus Harris had come to the crease at the fall of the first wicket. Immediately he had twice driven Overton for four, once through the covers and once through backward point, the latter running down to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion scoreboard. Twice in an over Brooks, bowling from the River End, found the edge of Harris’s bat, the first ran along the ground to Overton at third slip, the second flew wide of him and crossed the Gimblett’s Hill boundary. Davey beat him to gasps and was driven square for four. Brooks was lofted over mid-on for four more before, with tea approaching and Somerset hearts alternately leaping and stopping, Harris and Ackermann went on the defensive. Still the tension bit as the Somerset bowlers harried and probed. On the stroke of tea, literally, for it was the last ball, Davey penetrated Harris’s defence, found the inside edge and Davies took the ball low down. Leicestershire were 64 for 3, Harris 21, Somerset’s lead was still 397 and the prospect of another Championship victory was taking early shape, Somerset’s speed of scoring creating some insurance against the weather.

The players went off for tea under that low grey cloud with the smooth, almost shiny underside that is the dread of cricket-watchers with long experience. The floodlights were soon called in aid, and in a scene which reminded me of a time over half a century ago when greyhounds chased the hare around the ground to raise extra income for the Club, a squirrel ran along the boundary in front of Gimblett’s Hill before escaping through the ground staff’s gate. The squirrel gone, barely an bour’s play was possible before the rain arrived and ended play for the day. Well before that the tension had drained from the play. Boundaries were at a premium, a straight drive to the Trescothick Pavilion and a glance to the Colin Atkinson, both from Ackermann and both off de Lange in the same over, were the pick. The scoring rate dropped to two an over, the bat was beaten but rarely, and the only edge to raise the heart rate fell a yard short of slip.

The players eventually left the field after Josh Inglis, who had joined Ackermann after tea, drove Brooks through extra cover to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion scoreboard. Somerset had seemed dominant at tea. Only 31 more runs had been added in 14 overs since, but the batsmen, who had looked vulnerable before tea, seemed at ease after it. Somerset’s lead was still 366, but the way forward looked that bit less certain as the umbrellas slowly filed out of the ground.

Close. Somerset 461 for 8 dec (D.P. Conway 88, R.E. van der Merwe 76, J.H. Davey 75*, G.T. Griffiths 3-93. Leicestershire 95 for 3. Leicestersbire trail by 366 runs with seven first innings wickets standing.